Romantic Desperation and Erotomania in The Woman in the Park
A new mystery novel grapples honestly with an ill-known psychological disorder.
Posted Jul 05, 2019
I hope it isn’t giving away too much of the plot to say up front that The Woman in the Park is a murder mystery involving a woman in a park. (Ha!) Its protagonist is a woman named Sarah, who is in therapy. Some of her therapy sessions involve hypnosis. Some involve mention of a disorder called erotomania. All that being said, there is considerable suspense in the book about which character is mentally ill, what part hypnosis plays in anyone’s illness or recovery, and whether any character in the book actually suffers from erotomania.
I recently interviewed Teresa Sorkin and Tullan Holmqvist, authors of The Woman in the Park, by email.
Q: Many people have not heard the word “erotomania” before, though it’s easy to imagine that it has something to do with mania about eroticism. Can you define it for us?
A: Psychiatry’s most current Diagnostic and Statistical Manual categorizes erotomania as a delusional disorder in which a person believes that another person is in love with him or her. The onset of erotomania is usually sudden. The person on whom the delusion is focused is often a celebrity, politician, or other high-status person. But that’s not always the case. People with erotomania may develop fixations on random strangers and acquaintances. Erotomania is sometimes called “de Clerambault’s syndrome,” after the French psychiatrist who identified the behavior.
Q: When I first looked into the symptoms of erotomania I thought of two popular culture references. One is the lead character of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, who relentlessly pursues an ex-boyfriend. Interestingly, though, in Season 3 her diagnosis was revealed as borderline personality disorder. Another popular cultural reference is the Glenn Close character in the extraordinarily popular 1987 movie Fatal Attraction. I remember from the press for the movie that the fictional character was based on a real one. My question is this: Am I right in thinking that the behaviors of Rebecca in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Alex in Fatal Attraction at least hint at erotomania? And, setting aside fiction, are there some real-life examples of erotomania that readers might recognize?
A: As conceived by the Fatal Attraction writers, the Glenn Close character seems to us an example of a woman who suffers from a delusional disorder. Since beginning our own research into erotomania we have learned that many real-life cases are sometimes far stranger than most fiction. We studied hundreds of cases and read many books. The Incurable Romantic by Frank Tallis, a psychiatrist who specializes in the disorder, was a “must read” for us. It outlined some of the author’s own case studies. We highly recommend it to anyone interested in more information.
Back to popular culture: We can’t say for sure that these are real-life examples of erotomania, but David Letterman and the astronaut Story Musgrave were both stalked by the same person who appeared to have erotomanic delusions. John Hinckley, Jr., the man who attempted to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, is reported to have had erotomanic delusions toward Jodie Foster, and may have attempted the assassination out of misguided desire to communicate with or impress the actress. Also there was a case in 1995 in which a man by the name of Robert Hoskins believed Madonna was destined to be his wife and scaled her wall at her home. He threatened her multiple times and was then sentenced to ten years in prison.
Q: Fatal Attraction was the highest grossing movie of 1987. That seems like evidence of how gripping the idea of delusional romantic obsession is. But, while the movie's popularity reflects the voyeuristic interests of its audience, it says nothing about erotomania itself. How common is the syndrome?
A: Fortunately, it is rare but it seems to be occurring more often than in the past. Though it may not actually be more common. It may just be that news and social media have been drawing attention to it.
Q: What sorts of biological and life stresses can cause erotomania?
A: We’ve learned that delusional disorder, also known as paranoid disorder, is a serious mental illness or psychosis in which the person cannot tell what is real from what is imagined. Sometimes the delusions are bizarre. But sometimes they mimic real-life situations. A person might think he is being followed, poisoned, deceived, conspired against—or, as is the case in erotomania, loved. People with delusional disorders like erotomania often can continue to socialize and function quite normally. They generally do not behave in an obviously odd or bizarre manner. This disorder most often occurs in middle to late life and can be linked to childhood trauma, depression, and genetics.
Q: I’m impressed by the delicacy and respect with which you describe erotomaniacal behaviors in The Woman in the Park. How did you come by your understanding of the syndrome?
A: We were drawn to the idea of women and madness. It has been a recurring theme in literature, and we wanted to develop it within the mind of the person. In the case of this book, we wondered, "What if a woman were having a relationship in her own head? What would that look and feel like?" We started with that question and then the rest followed. The story sort of took over.
Q: I’d wager that, at some point or another, most of us have fallen victim to romantic desperation, some even to obsessions. But actual delusion is a step beyond where most of us go. When you researched erotomania for your novel, what did you learn about the difference between more garden variety heartbreak and erotomania?
A: Everyone experiences heartbreak at some point and there is a true feeling of depression and loss that can follow. These feelings are normal. It is when feelings become compulsory or obsessive that there is an issue. And while compulsory and obsessive behavior post-breakup don't necessarily suggest erotomania, our research has shown us that the line between heartache and delusion can be fuzzy at times.
Q: How did you become interested in the topic of erotomania?
A: We became interested because we both knew people who’d had profound mental illness. When we began discussing the idea of a phantom boyfriend or lover for our protagonist, we researched what could cause a disorder like that.
Q: The Woman in the Park is full of the kind of murder mystery surprises that were everywhere in Gone Girl. And, like Gone Girl, your book is about women and madness. As you wrote, did you keep in mind great mad heroines from literary history like Medea, Anna Karenina, and Ophelia? (“Frailty, thy name is woman,” Hamlet said.) And of course the madness of The Woman in the Park hearkens to the murderous insanity of Thérèse in Thérèse Raquin, which is the nineteenth century novel that your book’s protagonist is reading. Each chapter of your novel begins with an excerpt from the nineteenth century one. Tell me whether great literature about madness and women inspired you. And if so, how did it?
A: One of the books that we two authors had in common as favorites was Thérèse Raquin. The character was so misunderstood and mad. She evoked a feeling of loneliness that we wanted to portray. Many great works of literature were about madness and women.
Teresa Sorkin: One of my favorite characters of all time, Jay Gatsby, exhibited moments of delusion. He had delusion of grandeur and some erotomania towards Daisy. She was a bit mad, as well. As Lawrence says in the novel. “Isn’t all passion mixed with madness at times?” Tullan and I feel that is true in life as well as in literature.
Tullan Holmqvist: I’ve been inspired by many “mad” characters in literature, theater and film. In particular, Shakespeare, the Greek dramatists, and Ingmar Bergman have made strong impressions on me. I grew up discussing and reading a lot about the human psyche and the nature of human beings with my mother, who was a psychotherapist. She surrounded us with interesting thinkers, artists, and writers. I’ve always been interested in why humans behave the way they do. I ask a lot of questions and am interested in both the light and dark side of life.
Q: “Love conquers all.” It’s a romantic axiom mentioned several times in your novel. And it’s ironic, given that, in both The Woman in the Park and Thérèse Raquin, love is vile and drives people to conquer via murder. Is violence often the culmination of erotomania?
A: Erotomania can culminate in a persistent stalking behavior, but usually not in violence. An interesting fact is that erotomania is more common in women than in men, but men are more likely to become violent. Symptoms can be worse if they are coupled with other mental disorders.
Q: Hypnosis figures heavily as a therapeutic tool in The Woman in the Park. I’ve long had a bone to pick with people who blame the nineteenth century psychological researcher Jean-Martin Charcot for using hypnosis to create the myth of hysteria as a gynecologically-rooted mental illness affecting women only. In fact, he used hypnosis to demonstrate that the syndrome he and his colleagues called hysteria can plague men as well as women. His hypnosis demonstrations also showed that “hysteria” symptoms were often rooted in traumatic experiences, and not at all in the tribulations of either female or male reproductive organs. What did you learn about hypnosis as a treatment tool when researching your novel? Why did you choose to write about hypnosis as it’s used in therapy?
A: Hypnosis is an interesting tool in therapy that is usually used in combination with other forms of treatment to change behavior on a subconscious level. It can have minimal side-effects compared to medication and other treatments. Hypnosis can be used to treat anxiety, phobias, habits and addictive behavior, and we found it believable and interesting to include it in Sarah’s treatment.
Q: I’ve asked you why you wrote about erotomania and hypnosis. Why did you write this book? Is there a larger theme that you’re exploring?
A: In today’s culture, there seems to be a need to address the darker side of human beings, the shadow side of the psyche. We found it interesting to look at a mental disorder and put ourselves in the mind of a woman who really does not know what is real and what isn’t. As human beings, we can have more empathy and understanding for other people if we can put ourselves in their shoes, so to speak. We are very excited that our early readers are saying that they have experienced feeling like they are inside Sarah’s mind when reading The Woman in the Park. We really would love for our book to be just the beginning of an interesting conversation, especially about mental health and the human experience.
Q: I know it's early to ask, but what kind of book tour is planned? Where can readers get information about locations and dates?
A: We are planning a nationwide book tour arranged with our publicist. We will be constantly updating our dates on our websites: teresasorkin.com and tullanh.com.
The Woman in the Park will be published by Beaufort Books on August 26.
Tallis, F. (2018). Incurable Romantic: And Other Tales of Madness and Desire. Basic Books.Cover photo. Source: Copyright Beaufort Books. Used with permission.